SxSW 2018 Interview: CHI-TOWN director Nick Budabin

“Chi-Town follows 17-year-old Keifer Sykes as he leaves the south side of Chicago and embarks on an improbable four-year journey to the NBA. Keifer is an underdog his entire high school career, but in college, he bursts onto the scene as the most explosive point guard in college basketball. At only 5-11, Keifer is usually the smallest guy on the court, but his 45-inch vertical and monstrous dunks, make him one of the most exciting players in the country. But while Keifer is thriving in college in Wisconsin, his success contrasts with the devastating effects that hopelessness and violence have on his friends back home in Chicago. During his four years in college, many of his friends back home are shot, killed and locked up in jail.

Keifer is an inspiration and his journey serves as a vessel to shed light on important issues affecting the south and west side communities of Chicago. So this story isn’t just about Keifer; it is also about the others in Chicago who are left behind. It’s about the wasted talent and lack of opportunity all around him. And it is a rare look at a true champion – and what it really takes to make it.” — Director Nick Budabin

Congratulations on your film playing in Austin at SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

Thanks! Yes, this is my first time and SXSW and dream come true. I’ll be at all my screenings, wouldn’t miss it!

So how did you get into this business?

After high school, I studied television, radio and film at Syracuse University. Since graduating in 2000, I’ve been working as a director/show-runner in non-fiction TV. I’ve worked on series for A&E, MTV, Vice, Bravo, TLC, OWN, directing shows like “True Life”, “Growing up Gotti” “Cake Boss” and “Beerland”. I love working in television, but have always had aspirations to direct a feature documentary. And in 2011, when I was living in Chicago, all of the pieces came together for me to begin the process of making my first feature film.

How did CHI-TOWN come together for you?

In 2011, for the better part of the year, I was a transplant in Chicago. I had come from New York to produce a television show for the OWN network about the final season of the Oprah Winfrey show.  

While in Chicago, I had free time since I didn’t know many people there and I knew that the Windy City had a reputation for producing some of the best high school basketball players in the country. So I took my friend/DP Matt Elkind and started filming around the south and west sides.

With characteristic mid-west hospitality, we were welcomed into the community, and for months, we filmed with dozens of players, parents, coaches, and community leaders. We met and filmed with many incredible people, but ultimately decided to make the film about Keifer, because of his ability to connect on camera as a father, a son, a friend and a basketball player.

I teamed up with my executive producer, Terry Minogue and producers Neal Usatin and Terrence Elenteny, and after five years of filming, we were ready to edit the movie. We partnered with Northern Lights; a production company in NYC with a talented staff who helped us make the film in the edit. One of their staff editors, Chris Carson, became our lead editor and did an amazing job on Chi-Town, his first feature.

We hired an incredible team of composers, Ali Helnwein and Daniel McCormick, who created a powerful and moving soundtrack that brought out the emotion and tension in every scene.

Once we had a rough cut, we held feedback screenings with close friends and colleagues who helped us shape the film for audiences. We got a lot of great feedback and suggestions in those screenings, but it was important for me to trust my instincts and stay true to my vision.

Making Chi-Town was a collaborative process with a team of talented people who could execute my vision and bring their own ideas and skills to the project.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

It took me 7 years to make Chi-Town, and my mantra along the way was “hard work and faith”. I knew that if I wanted to achieve my goal of becoming a filmmaker, I had to constantly push myself to work harder on this than any other project I’d done before. There were many failures, disappointments and low moments along the way, so, having faith in the process and believing in my vision was a huge motivating factor for me.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

The biggest challenge of making Chi-Town was trying to take the massive issue of the violence and inequality happening in Chicago and find a way to tell it in a way that would get audiences engaged and entertained, while simultaneously being respectful of the material.

The way Keifer plays basketball is so thrilling and his basketball journey so compelling, that it provided a narrative structure for us to be able to tell much larger stories about the tragedies happening to the people close to him in Chicago.  

So the most rewarding moment for me was when I recognized that Keifer’s journey could combine many of the emotions and messages we wanted to convey about Chicago combined with the style of film I really wanted to make.  


I’m about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie and how it was photographed.

Our DP Matt Elkind has a lengthy history in both single camera doc shooting and multi cam directing so he really understands coverage and shooting for the edit. We had a Panasonic hpx-170, a smaller camera, which worked well to help us have a low-key presence as we entered communities that we were just being introduced to; hanging out in gyms or walking around neighborhoods.

The HPX-170 did have some limitations, so we used a 5d for some low-light and stylized shots a couple of times, and Matt also brought out a red epic for a couple of shoots when we wanted to over-crank or to show a different side of Chicago from the one we were seeing on the south and west side.

Matt shot just about everything handheld, including interviews, establishing shots, and b-roll.  That meant that an interview could happen almost at the drop of a hat, and Matt would shoot the interview more off-angle, which also helped keep things casual.  

Matt lives in New York, so he couldn’t be there for every shoot, but anytime he was unavailable, he would brief the shooter the best he could and we were lucky to have some really strong shooters step in, like Terrence Elenteny, Joe Hoffman and Dan Akiba.

I’ve worked with Matt for years and really trust his style, so mostly I could let him work while I concentrated on the content and getting access to what we needed to cover.  It would just be the 2 of us shooting so Matt would be shooting, dealing with audio, and media managing as necessary and I would be doing everything from meeting new people, asking interview questions and gathering release forms.

We both felt strongly early on that we should use our limitations as strengths. Rather than see our small team as a lack of help, we saw greater freedom and intimacy so we used that to our advantage.  

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I’ve been dreaming about premiering at SXSW for a long time. There are many film festivals out there, but SXSW attracts audiences who not only love films, but also love music and appreciate style, and those are some of the main elements that I focused on for Chi-Town. So, to screen my film that I’ve been working on for 7 years, in a theatre for the first time with not only my close family and friends, but also film lovers, will be a huge thrill for me. We also have a surprise in the film for local Texans, and so I’m excited for that reveal.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

After SXSW, our plan is to screen the film at more festivals, both domestic and international. We want to expose Chi-Town to documentary fans around the world. From there, we hope that the film will find distribution, whether online, television, in theatres, or all of the above. We also plan to bring the film to younger basketball fans around the country by holdings screenings at gyms, camps, school, churches and YMCA’s.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

We’re planning to screen Chi-Town in Chicago and I can’t wait for that experience. I met and filmed with so many incredible people during my time there, and this movie is really for them more than anyone else. Plus, I’m really excited for Keifer to be able to screen the film with all of this family and friends who have supported his journey.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

My advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers is to make a movie about something or someone that you’re genuinely interested in, passionate about and will want to spend your time around. Whether you realize it or not, that person or subject is going to become a huge part of your life for the foreseeable future, and so, to enjoy the process and stay engaged in making the film, you have to love what you’re doing.

And final question: what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

The best movie I saw at a film festival was the movie BENJI at the Tribeca film festival. BENJI is about Ben Wilson, a promising basketball player from Chicago who was shot and killed in high school in the 80’s. I learned a lot about Ben Wilson’s story while making my film, and it was amazing to see how the filmmakers were able to take one incident, in this case the murder of Ben Wilson, and create such a thought-provoking and remarkable film. For me, being at the festival screening, while I was making Chi-Town, and seeing how the audience reacted to the film, was also very inspiring and motivational.


Be sure to follow the process on CHI-TOWN at!


Alamo Ritz 1 on Sunday, March 11 at 1:45 PM
AND Alamo Lamar A on Monday, March 12 at 12:15 PM
AND Alamo Lamar A on Wednesday, March 14 at 8:15 PM


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